Expat Wives Club: Keepers of the Wonder Woman Facade?


Trailing spouses, supporting spouses, expat wives, expat spouses.  These terms provoke similar responses from women on the treadmill of regular life back home.  Conversations about expat spouses needing a ‘reality check’ or the prediction of these folk not coping when they return home as living ‘the high life’. I mean, these folk won the lottery and have escaped the rat race to live out a fantastical life of luxury and pampering, right?

While the expat life has many advantages and benefits to both the posted officer and their families, it does come at some expense; it’s not all smooth sailing.  Most spouses have placed their career on hold to support their partner to further their career and many also experience difficulty securing work themselves due to visa requirements.  This means financial dependence and feelings of mooching, not contributing to the household.

Further, dealing with the loss of routine, personal and professional identity, one’s support network of friends and family, and all things familiar from home become magnified. In my experience dealing with everyday situations can be a struggle due to cultural expectations (like requiring a husband’s approval to open a bank account), language barriers, loneliness and boredom.  The facade of being Wonder Women naturally begins to crumble.

What I have also found is a peculiar culture of ‘everything is awesome’ permeating through the expat wives club.  An expectation to sing the praises of the lifestyle and not let cracks appear is evident – don’t let the team down.  Even when meeting other expat spouses we all ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you settling in?’ and we have learned to cheerily answer ‘I love it here’, ‘coping well’ when working the crowd.  Those not coping or needing to debrief do so in whispers in one on one conversations with trusted confidants. Lest they be the subject of gossip and labelled as someone not coping, not maintaining the party line. Publicly, remember, ‘everything is awesome’ and noone likes a Debbie Downer.

Blogs and social media pages are popping up everywhere as a tool for spouses to cope and reach out anonymously for support and an outlet for reflection.  Posts have similar themes if you read carefully – isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression and of course the Facebook highlight reel that reinforces the Wonder Woman facade.  But don’t feel too much sympathy for these spouses, after all these folk won the lottery and escaped the rat race to enjoy a fantastical life of luxury and pampering, right?




The Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg concluded there are four stages experienced by expats when adjusting to life in a new country and culture.  Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride, so let’s explore each stop from my own perspective..

Honeymoon phase

During this phase everything is new and exciting and this feeling may last up to a two months; for me this euphoria lasted 2 weeks to the day. Expats possess a positive mindset and feel enthusiastic about creating a life and career in the host country.

Negotiation phase

Culture shock emerges and can last up to 6 months or so into the move.  This phase finds the expat attempting to reconcile what is known or normal from ‘home'(i.e., the social and cultural norms and expectations) and those of the new country.  New knowledge needs to be created regarding social sublties (e..g., subtle gestures, greetings, social interactions, facial expressions etc), making purchases at stores, ordering food at restaurants,  dealing with domestic staff, expectations for conduct of men and women – everything yon take for granted at home.

This time can mess with your mindset and may be a period of confusion, depression, grieving, stress, disorientation, anxiety, depression or frustration.  Talk to others able their experiences as well as their coping strategies, it helps. The negotiation phase lasted from 2 weeks – around 9 months into our posting for me and I found that at times I moved between the negotiation phase and adjustment phase around the 9 month mark.

Adjustment phase

Towards the end of my first year at post, I had developed and implemented coping strategies and this is when I began to feel comfortable and confident within my new country.  Venturing out to malls and supermarkets and catching taxis became ok – I knew some basic language and possessed a limited mental map of the city.  Things start to look promising once more.  The people, language, food and culture start to become the new normal and familiar and I found that when I visited home, I started to feel like a misfit.

Mastery phase

Within 12-18 months I had found that my host country was now ‘home’ and home became ‘Australia’.  The mastery phase was a time of high functioning  and feeling comfortable in my host country.  From this point I found that I had become a triangle (see my post I Am Now a Triangle).  I had moved from a circle country to a square country and had morphed into a shape that did not truly fit either.

Repatriation phase

I have added this phase as this is a dangerous phase.  The thought of returning home home lulls expats into a false sense of security – friends, family and colleagues ask how hard can it be? You’re returning to the familiar, to normalcy. wpid-wp-1401709243607.jpeg Hati, hati (danger)! We often reminisce about how beautiful our home town is, happy family and friends, returning to our previous workplace and colleagues and somehow we have forgotten the day to day frustrations.

The stages of cultural adjustment will kick in all over again.  Reverse culture shock emerges and can be more debilitating than when moving to the host country and familiarising with the new culture.  Changes to work culture and expectations, socio-cultural changes and unrealistic expat expectations may all be contributing factors.

My world view has been altered and returning to Australia is both exciting and anxiety inducing.  I realise that once more I will need to extend patience, understanding and tough love to myself and partner as we make another transition and support each other to thrive through the process.


Learning Bahasa Indonesia, or not..

Being posted to Indonesia  with my partner was exciting, anxiety inducing AND it would allow me to learn a new language. How else was I to get by in this city of 10 million people? 3 years in and I’m still not even remotely fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. I get by. I no longer beat myself up about it. My commitment to learn was palpable and I had a plan. Enrolling in language classes filled me with false hopes of conversing with our pembantu & driver, understanding the local news & other programs, engaging in girlie chit chat with the local Spa girls.. didn’t happen.

wpid-dsc_00022.jpg.jpegLearning Bahasa Indonesia is considered by many to be one of the easiest languages to pick up.  However I found that while formal Indonesian is taught in class, informal Indonesia is spoken on the streets so the learning doesn’t necessarily transfer to a life context. My advice: sign up for one on one tuition in conversational Bahasa Indonesia to develop a general gist of the language and pronunciation and be kind to yourself – no pressure.

Now I’m not special. I’m not the only expat to try and give up. Many expat spouses have enrolled for classes and private tuition only to give up due to frustration of not learning fast enough, or being time poor due to kids, volunteering, work or study commitments. Many friends have tried and failed like me, preferring to get by with charades and the odd Indonesian word thrown into English sentences to make meaning when interacting with locals. We get by.

We live in an apartment complex filled with expats from varied countries French, Chinese, Brits, Aussies, wealthy Indonesians. Staff speak English with varying degrees of proficiency which reduces the necessity to learn. Work is an English speaking environment where even cleaners, drivers, café staff and speak at least some English.  And the locals that possess the tiniest fraction of basic English are so proud and excited to share this knowledge that they don’t want to converse in Indonesian!  

So with home and work negating the need to learn what’s it like when we enter the real world? Well, signage and store names are displayed in Indonesian and English, newspapers are published on English and Google automatically translates websites.  Most people have basic English so dining out, shopping, and seeking directions is usually fine. The lack of Bahasa Indonesia means it’s difficult to make meaningful connections with locals due to language barriers. But If all else fails Google Translate!

So what do I do with my time if I’m not engaging in language learning? Mostly I work and study but I have time to experience this city and country through travel and other cultural activities. The sights, smells, food, people and the traffic (ranked worst in the world).  My experience turned into something really positive once I stopped beating myself up for my lack of Bahasa Indonesia skills.

And now we’re getting ready for our next adventure…


Frustrated Trailing Spouses

Reading this article made me realise the value of the job I do here to support officers and their families as they move to and then settle in at post.

Even with the support of our office, spouses are “left to tackle the challenging dynamics of establishing a home and integrating alone; whilst the focus of the companies was on getting their spouses settled into their new workplace as quickly as possible.”
Sadly this is the time for the trailing spouse to be the buffer for the officer and the anchor for the family, as rough as it is.

Dealing with removalists, service providers, domestic staff and so on in an unfamiliar country and culture and most often grappling with a new language and suddenly no friends and family for support is tough but we all know that.. we do it and feel a sense of accomplishment and little by little our confidence grows.

We venture out a little more and meet new people who share their experiences and support us to try new things and introduce us to new people.  Eventually you do have a friendship network and you do settle in and the bumps on the road become fewer and far between. We learn to be kind to others and a little easier on ourselves, and life in our adopted country becomes familiar and the culture a little more appealing and suddenly life is good again (mostly)..